As the impacts of the 2012 drought become more apparent, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) acted by announcing several changes to emergency programs designed to provide more relief and faster assistance to affected farmers and ranchers. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined the new provisions, which affect disaster-area designations, emergency loan rates and emergency haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres.
Vilsack noted that emergency provisions from the 2008 Farm Bill expired in September 2011, and in the absence of a new bill, USDA needed new tools to respond to this year's extreme conditions.
The first new provision streamlines secretarial disaster designations. Under the new rule, counties designated as 'D2' or severe drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor for eight-consecutive weeks during the growing season will automatically qualify as disaster areas. Disaster delegations have been made for 1,297 counties in 29 states, the largest secretarial designation in the program's history.
Vilsack also announced changes to USDA's emergency loan interest rates. Noting that the interest rate on these loans has remained at 3.75 percent since 1993 while rates for other operating loans have fallen below that level, Vilsack says a new emergency-loan rate of 2.25 percent will take effect. The secretary said about $38 million to $39 million is available for emergency loans to farmers and ranchers.
Specifically for ranchers, Vilsack announced changes to improve the availability of CRP acres for emergency haying or grazing. The new rule reduces the penalty for haying or grazing CRP acres from a 25-percentn to a 10 percent-reduction of payments on those acres. As before, ranchers must delay haying and grazing on CRP acres until after the primary nesting season, so the dates vary between states and regions.
Read more about the new disaster-assistance policies at www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2012/07/0228.xml&contentidonly=true.